Some people see the world as an infinite number of prize fights, each with one winner and one loser. For them life is an unending series of these zero-sum games. Unfortunately, one of these people is the President of the United States.
One example of something that is not a zero-sum game is a global pandemic. Someone else’s sickness is for me not a gain but a threat. No nation gains from the toll in another nation. To fight against the contagion, the main weapon is cooperation, on all levels, from interpersonal to international. On the international level, sharing resources and information is essential, because any vulnerability of any nation threatens the people of all other nations.
The nations fighting one another in World War I thought the opposite. So each one, including the US, treated the growing epidemic of 1918 as a military secret. The existence of the killer virus became public only because Spain, which was not one of the warring nations, refused to censor news about the disease. Estimates of death from the 1918 pandemic range from 17 million to 100 million. The war directly killed 53,000 Americans. The virus killed between 500,000 and 675,000 Americans. A deeper look would reveal that the ravages of the war, together with the perverted culture of war, were the pandemic’s greatest enablers, if not its causes.
Today we no longer fight wars on the grand scale of World Wars I and II, the Korea War, the Vietnam War, and the Iraq War, at least for a couple of decades. We mainly fight what are called, euphemistically, low-intensity wars and trade wars. The United States in particular has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to destroy the economy and infrastructure of entire nations, even such developed nations as Venezuela and Iran, using only subversion, bribery, boycotts, sabotage, disinformation, and tariffs.
This raises some questions too big to answer well in a brief essay. Question 1: Didn’t this present preferred war-fighting strategy in fact destroy the Soviet Union, making the United States the winner of the Cold War? There were three attempts to use conventional armies to destroy to the Soviet Union. First was the coordinated invasion, launched in 1918 by Britain, France, the US, Japan, Australian, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Serbia, Italy, Poland, Greece, and Romania. Second was the series of invasions by Japan, beginning in 1931 and ending with the Soviet destruction of Japan’s 6th Army in the historic Battle of Khalkin Gol in August 1939. Finally came the invasion by the Nazi juggernaut that had just easily conquered all its European adversaries. The USSR defeated even this military colossus in the decisive battle of World War II. Yet forty-five years of the Cold War left the USSR a dismembered giant corpse. Thus the second question: Could the strategy of Cold War destroy China, the latest contender to be the world’s largest and most technologically advanced nation? Even before Covid-19 arrived, Trump’s economic and political warfare against China was seriously damaging the Chinese economy as well as inflicting significant damage on its own. This leads to the most important question.
There was certainly a loser in the Cold War. But was the United States a winner? Looking at our abysmal health care statistics (including life expectancy, infant mortality, obesity, drug addiction, and suicide), our collapsing infrastructure, our disgraceful public education and public ignorance, the grotesque inequality between the one percent and everyone else, and our dysfunctional political system, one might ask: What did we win? And what would our nation look like today if, instead of the Cold War, we had extended the wartime cooperation with the USSR? The only certain outcome of the Cold War is that both Russia and the United States each still possess a doomsday weapon that continually threatens to wipe out human civilization and perhaps our species.
Which brings us back to today’s bleak scene of crashing stock markets, a tragic-comic US election, and a disease threatening our personal freedom, our social pleasures, and our lives. China, seriously weakened by the US trade and political wars, made the same mistake as the World War I belligerent nations: trying to keep Covid-19 a secret. The Trump administration, among many other blunders and gaffes, is now making a worse and truly incomprehensible mistake: maintaining the tariffs and the rest of the trade war.
It is making the same mistake in relation to Iran. Before Covid-19 hit, the US had succeeded in wrecking much of Iran’s economy and infrastructure, leaving that nation unable to contain the disease. The zero-sum game thinking behind this US policy hardly helps us win the game of death the virus is playing against us.
Trump’s continuation of his trade war with China is also directly damaging the US and global economies, thus significantly exacerbating the crash of stock markets at home and around the world. This should be obvious to Washington policy makers, but perhaps not to someone who inherited 412 million dollars and proceeded to go bankrupt multiple times.
Trump is now blaming the stock market crashes on the media and Democrats for allegedly exaggerating the dangers of the virus. Covid-19 is certainly the event that triggered the crashes and it will certainly worsen the recession that now threatens. But remember that before the virus struck, there were already numerous warnings of both wildly overvalued markets and a possible recession looming in the months ahead. US manufacturing indices were already contracting. The Trump Administration was handing out tens of billions of dollars to bail out American farmers, to make up for their loss of markets due to Chinese retaliation. The yield curve had already inverted twice, usually a reliable indicator of coming recession. Long-term interest rates were so low that they were giving the lie to stock market’s wild euphoria (which often precedes a major selloff or crash). Trump desperately sought to keep the markets fat and happy and to postpone any recession until after his reelection. That’s why he was furiously bullying to Fed to cut interest rates drastically. He even urged the Fed to push into negative yield territory.
Now think back to late 2007 and 2008, when eight years of Republican recklessness in war and finance came perilously close to destroying the global banking system and did succeed in crashing the markets and plunging the nation, and the global economy, into what’s now called the Great Recession, the worst recession since the Depression of 1929 and the 1930s. The only one major nation that steered clear of recession was China. While demand was collapsing around the world, it was China, acting like some super engine, that pulled the global economy out of the quagmire. Continuing to wage economic war against China today is thus suicidally insane.
Neither Covid-19 nor a major recession poses a threat to our survival as a species. We do, however, face two existential threats, both created by our species, and each featuring our nation in the lead role. At the very moment when only global unity and cooperation can save us from threats of nuclear holocaust and environmental devastation, deadly nationalism is tearing our species apart. Can Covid-19 teach us that those two great menaces to our existence are also not zero-sum games? That our species either wins or we, as well as many other species, all lose?